Major League Baseball is an utterly massive entity. There are 780 players on an active roster at any given time during the regular season. This year especially, with the expanded rosters for April along with the yearly September call-ups, that number expands to 840. It’s impossible to keep track of every player. In the first month alone, 394 different pitchers made an appearance out of the bullpen. The ones that aren’t stars or highly touted prospects can slip through the cracks. This is further compounded by the relentless turnover in bullpens league-wide. They go from team to team, they get injured, they get sent down, and new ones get called up. It’s an endless cycle. So I thought I’d shed some light on a few of them—ones that are off to hot starts you may not have noticed.
1. Victor Arano
From 2019 to 2021, Victor Arano pitched just 44.2 innings. 40 of them came in AAA. After pitching in the Braves system without ever being called up last year, he signed with Washington this past offseason on a minor-league deal. This rough stretch after a promising start to his career makes the start he’s off to this season even more fascinating. The Statcast movement numbers may not be particularly impressive but, looking a little deeper, we find that his slider is one of the very best in baseball.
It’s a slider that thrives off of its gyro spin so it doesn’t have big sweeping movement. It’s almost completely straight with very little horizontal movement in either direction but appears to have late bite to the hitter. Something about this movement profile utterly baffles hitters. They can barely touch the pitch. He also has a heavy sinker that induces lots of ground balls. Additionally, he’ll sometimes throw a high 4-seamer which has been effective though in limited use. Pitch location has been a strength of his so far, pounding the bottom corners. He often throws his pitches just out of the zone but close enough that hitters are enticed to swing at them.
Arano is an excellent relief pitcher, everything you could ask for. High strikeout numbers, doesn’t beat himself with poor command, and limits dangerous contact. After going just 11 days shy of three years between MLB outings, he looks poised to dominate from the bullpen.
Having reinvented himself in the time since his first cup of coffee in 2018, Joey Krehbiel is a backward pitcher. Granted, he always was. He threw a sweeping slider more than 50% of the time in that first stint. What makes it stranger is that he’s since essentially scrapped that pitch. Less than a third of his pitches so far this season have been fastballs. He now works primarily off of a changeup that was previously an afterthought and a cutter he learned and developed during the downtime that the lack of minor league baseball in 2020 created. Microscopic sample size aside, there’s some promise here that he could find sustained success with his new arsenal.
(Image courtesy of Baseball Savant)
Having three pitches with distinctly different shapes and movements is a good start. Throwing each of them regularly enough that a hitter can’t sit on any of them comfortably helps all of them play up a bit. His changeup in particular is excellent. It garners nonthreatening contact and whiffs alike. That new cutter poses problems for hitters because it has some carry on it to go with slider-like horizontal break. It complements his fastball beautifully because the 6.4 inches of cut he averages contrasts with the 10.6 inches of run he gets on the heater. He has shown a knack for avoiding line drives in his short MLB career, creating extreme launch angle results that are likely to fluctuate back to a more normal profile eventually. Even with this in mind, I think he’s got the potential to stick around towards the back of a big-league bullpen.
Garrett Whitlock generated a ton of buzz last year as a star rookie relief arm for Boston. One of the things that people refused to let anyone forget was that Whitlock was a Rule 5 draft selection. He was originally a Yankees prospect before being left unprotected and then was snatched up by their bitter rival. What you might not have known was that Whitlock wasn’t the only Yankees farmhand taken in the Rule 5 draft that year. Trevor Stephan was selected by Cleveland. Now he seems primed and ready to contribute at the back end of their bullpen this season. He was largely sheltered in his first season with the club- given mostly low-leverage innings. With one year of big-league experience under his belt, he’s made some slight adjustments and has laid waste to hitters so far in 2022.
He hasn’t undergone any noticeable mechanical changes—his release points and extension are nearly identical to last season. His delivery also shows no signs of change. Maybe it’s the new humidors but he’s upped the active spin on his fastball and splitter. His fastball, a 4-seam variant, moves more like a 2-seam. It’s got a lot of arm-side run and it sinks rather than rises. Despite this, it misses bats regularly: far more than league average. It also reaps the benefits of a sinker, inducing ground balls. He pairs this fastball with a devastating splitter, shown above, and a slider that grades plus despite being arguably the weakest of the three offerings. Although he’s had some difficulties controlling the split-fingered pitch in the past, he seems to have new confidence in it.
Armed with a three-pitch mix, all of which are capable of missing bats and forcing weak contact, there aren’t a lot of negative things you can say about Stephan right now. He hasn’t even walked a hitter yet this season. While that won’t last forever, there’s more than enough reason to believe that he’ll continue his strong performance as the sample size increases.
When I noticed that this was the sixth MLB season that Dillon Peters has pitched in, I was a bit surprised. He’s never really fully established himself anywhere—bouncing between the majors and AAA. Now the Pirates are his third team since 2018. Having made the switch to full-time bullpen arm, the early results seem to be paying dividends. As you might expect with a former starter now working shorter outings, his stuff has ticked up. He’s throwing about a tick and a half harder on his fastballs. His offspeed pitches have also bumped up one on the radar gun. Perhaps more importantly, he has a new approach.
Peters’ career may have been saved by the trade that sent him to the Pirates. They’ve tweaked his mechanics twice, having him extend further in 2021 and then furthering the change by having him drop his arm slot slightly. It’s not super noticeable to the naked eye, but the effect it’s had on his pitches is a different story. A soft contact machine so far, he’s using his changeup to great effect. He’s inducing weak ground balls if they even make contact with it. He has also reintroduced his slider almost exclusively against lefties. His absurd .029 BAA is unsustainable but there’s cause for some cautious optimism. There may be more strikeouts on the way. His stuff suggests the potential for it. For now, he plays a dangerous game. One he could be successful with.
5. Wil Crowe
Looking at another pitcher who found himself traded to the Pirates in 2021, Wil Crowe seems to have been given similar advice as Peters. He’s changed his pitch mix, throwing more changeups and sliders, so now he throws his two fastballs just 35% of the time. While his stuff didn’t tick up in a traditional sense with the move to the bullpen, he’s pitching significantly better. I think a lot of it has to do with improved pitch location. He’s staying away from hittable locations and throwing fewer “bad strikes.” This has led to a significant decrease in quality of contact, albeit across a much smaller sample size. Leaning into the success of his changeup last year seems to be a recipe for success. It was the only pitch he had that performed well in 2021.
Like some of the other pitchers we’ve looked at, that changeup can create both whiffs and weak contact. It’s a bit of a unique pitch in that it doesn’t have as much arm-side movement as you might expect. It actually averages less horizontal break than his sinker. Despite this, it’s been an effective put-away pitch for him. Perhaps it’s the strangeness of it that makes it work. What’s interesting is that with the improved command of his other pitches, it may not be his best offering anymore.
Now that he’s locating his slider just outside of the zone more often, it’s generating more ground balls and soft contact. This, along with the changeup, the sinker, and the 4-seam fastball, provides a varied arsenal that not a lot of relievers have access to. He also throws a curveball with good vertical break and a 12-6 shape though the usage of that pitch has been scaled back a bit. If this new command is for real, he has potential as a multi-inning relief pitcher—possibly even one that can work his way back into a starting rotation.
One of the good problems in baseball is that there are so many talented players in the game today. There’s so much baseball to watch and no way to keep an eye on all of it. There are players like this every year that go completely under the radar, and they deserve more recognition. I’m looking forward to keeping an eye on these guys as the year progresses as well as looking for more players that warrant a deeper look and acclaim.
Photos by Frank Jansky & David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Drew Wheeler (@drewisokay on Twitter)